Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Dungeons of Doom!: The Pre-Code Horror Comics Volume Three

Harvey Comics
Part Three

By Jose Cruz
and Peter Enfantino

Peter: Jed Barnes was once a handsome man and had it all. Now, after an industrial accident, he's "The Ugly Duckling (CoC #22), hidden behind a face swathed in bandaging. A living mummy, he wanders through the days, laughed at and shunned, until he can take no more. Standing on a bridge, contemplating suicide, he catches sight of a lovely girl, obviously with the same goal in mind. Jed rescues the young lady and the two fast become friends and before too long, Jed and Ruth are married. After the honeymoon, Ruth begins nagging her husband about the accident that led to his deformity. Reticent to bring up the past, Jed constantly changes the subject until, one day, Ruth tells him that keeping the secret will ruin their marriage. With a sigh and a heavy heart, Jed tells Ruth what happened: He was a "darn good" machinist, working on "precision cutting machines... big ones... with six rotary blades"when an overhead crane knocked him face first onto the conveyor belt. After the story, Ruth comforts the sobbing man but follows up with the ominous "... you mustn't hide behind those bandages the rest of your life! They'll have to come off some day..." As if making it her life's work, Ruth nags and nags Jed about unmasking until, one night she "passes the bounds of all restraint" and attempts to cut the wrappings off herself. Snapping, Jed screams at his wife and rips the bandages from his face, climaxing his act with a "Satisfied?"

Why, yes, I was satisfied, thank you. What a sad and, yet, so demented short story. Jed is an immensely sympathetic character, one who obviously didn't deserve the hell he's been put through, and so I assumed we'd see him on a murderous rampage before the end of the strip. This being a Chamber of Chills story, that is. What we get instead is an even farther descent into hell once Jed saves Ruth from tossing herself into the river. Far from the loving woman she first appears to be, Ruth is a nasty shrew with a killer curiosity. Jed's life goes from a living hell to some further edge of suffering, pushing him finally to unwrap and almost parade his "scars" to the woman he thought he loved ("You're... no different! Want to see what my face is like..? Okay..! Here... look! Look...! Feast your eyes! Drink your full! Slobber it up! Look... Look...!"). And how about those scars? Comic book artists in the pre-code days would whip up some pretty crazy images but what to make of a head that has been cut into six pieces and yet still manages to keep its shape (each layer almost hovering in space)? Silly, you say? Take another look. Manny Stallman and John Giunta contribute some gorgeous neo-noir art to "The Ugly Duckling" (check out that splash!).

(I can't tell you how long I struggled with including this in my Top 5 this week. The story is so expertly written and existentially bleak that you may very well be convinced that this is the script for a genuine noir film translated to the comic book medium. I was completely bowled by how despairing the narrative was, from Jed's initial ostracization to his dread over Ruth's new obsession with his face. The only reason I cut it out was because of that damn final panel. I think I just felt that the rest of the story was so mature and dark that I just didn't expect the climax to be quite so overt and literal. That aside, I'm really glad you included it because this is still without a doubt a story that deserves attention. -Jose)

Jose: Carlo Furelli is past his prime, but you would have a tough time convincing him of that. The aged choir master sees a notice from the employment agency as his ticket back to the bandstand, but upon hearing from the stage manager that he was just looking to fill a janitor position Furelli is furious. He attempts to solicit the favors of his old pupils—singers who have gone on to claim great fame and reward since the time of Furelli’s tutelage—but they all ignore the geezer or pity him as if he were nothing but a common beggar. Getting shoved in the face by a burly drinker when he asks that the channel be changed on the television to an opera station is Furelli’s final degradation. He resolves to gather all of his old pupils to show the world his greatness… even if it means enlisting their aid forcibly! With disappearances and signs of foul play ravaging the news, Furelli manages to sneak into a radio station to fulfill his master plan. When the horrible sound of a mighty organ interrupts the broadcast, the crew finds Furelli pumping the keys on his new instrument, complete with the severed heads of his students mounted on the pipes!

“The Choir Master” (CoC #21) is a symphony of minimalism. It’s a bare-bones revenge story that never looks like it’s trying to call attention to itself, efficiently plotted by Bob Powell that shows the course of one man’s entire failure of a life and his “triumphant” return in five spare pages. What I especially like is that it doesn’t ever to try and pull a bait-and-switch with the reader; Furelli’s guilt in the disappearances is implicitly understood and Powell knows this. The panels showing the victims cringing at the sight of a menacing shadow and the meager puddle of blood left at one scene of the crime brilliantly ratchet up the tension. It’s important that we never see Furelli carry out these crimes and Powell doesn’t give him exposition-heavy dialogue that makes his goal transparent, a detriment that plagued more than a few pre-code horror comic tales. When that final panel comes, it packs a whallop, not unlike Powell’s similar expected-but-impactful stinger to “Happy Anniversary.” And Powell’s art is beau-ti-ful, heavy on the lines and sumptuously realized. Furelli’s glassy-eyed turning point is just as chilling as the socko ending. If you ask me, this can easily stand with the best of E. C.

(And E.C. is exactly what it reminded me of, especially in its gruesome final panel. It's cut from the same cloth as the infamous "Foul Play" (Haunt of Fear #19) and I'm completely in agreement with you on this one, Jose. Powell proves that, after several years of pumping these things out, he's getting the hang of it. Pity it was coming to an end in just a few short months -Peter)

Peter: Three explorers discover an ancient race living in a paradise near the earth's core. When the people of Centralia (get it?) welcome the trio with open arms, the men take advantage of exploring the futuristic utopia and discover one peculiarity: there seems to be no food. The boys are invited to take part in the weekly "Lottery," wherein they are assigned a number and, ostensibly, the chance to win a fabulous prize. Incredibly enough, all three men win the drawing and are ushered onto a moving walk and into a cave. At the end of the journey, the men are a bit surprised to discover why they saw no food supplies in the city: they are the food.

"Lottery" (from CoC #22) is a bit silly indeed (the opening exclaims that "after finding the Tashkenti fissure in Northern Gobi" the men "descended two thousand miles into the bowels of the earth..." -- now that's a long trip on foot!) but its seeming naivete and almost 1950s DC Comics look give way to a chilling climax with a really nasty final panel. Manson's final screech ("Yeow! Get me back! Stop the walk! I know what they eat now!") is very similar to Charlton Heston's  proclamation just before the credits roll in Soylent Green. But, again, that last brutal image, one of the explorers hanging from a meathook, is one that lingers for quite a while.

(I enjoyed this one enough for what it was and also thought that the exposition in the beginning sounded awfully dubious! I think I totally missed that detail in the final panel. I couldn't quite make out what was going on, but now it does add a further grim note to this little soufflé. -Jose)

Jose: Lawrence Romaine, the brilliant scientist who discovered the means to successfully replace diseased human organs with donors, has been a little broken up since his fiancĂ©e Susanne died of a heart attack. After three months of emotional torture, Lawrence swears to bring his beloved back from the grave using his great genius. Going to the cemetery, Lawrence cuts the healthy—but dead—heart out of a recently interred body and steals Susanne away to his laboratory. Lawrence works tirelessly to revive the deceased organ, feeding it oxygen and massaging the circulatory routes. Once the heart is back to its throbbing life, Lawrence places it in Susanne’s chest cavity and waits expectantly. When the body resuscitates and rises from its slab, he is overwhelmed with joy. But the thousand-yard stare the lady has is no longer for Lawrence, for as the scientist watches in horror she walks right past him to a rotting corpse that stands at the door. When they embrace and kiss each other passionately, Lawrence realizes that the other zombie was the original owner of the heart.

Though the notorious horror publications of the 50s were targeted by the Senate more for their drippy violence than any latent sexual content, “Heartline” (CoC #23) seems a top contender for being an example of the salacious material that was always just simmering under the surface. There’s some very subversive ground being covered here, none moreso than Lawrence’s rather unhealthy affection for his late girlfriend. Though we see the (living) couple smooching on each other in a flashback, there’s a rather revealing line of dialogue that Lawrence speaks to his lady’s cold corpse: “You’re never more beautiful—nor more desirable!” There’s also a sly focus on Suzanne’s skimpily-bandaged chest. For the purposes of science, of course. The ending could be viewed as another in a long line of gimmicks, but I think it has a twisted psychology to it that speaks to darker depths. The sight of the corpse planting kisses on the resurrected Suzanne is the ultimate form of mental castration: Lawrence has given life to his one true love but she ultimately rejects him for the sterile embrace of a zombie. It’s a reverse on the ending to Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but like in that story, no one ends up happy with the results.

(This one hooked me from the splash [This is the heart... This is the girl... These are my hands] but this is not the finest hour for Giunta and Stallman. Susanne deteriorates from runway model to crack addict to, in that penultimate panel, fanged beast for no reason. Lawrence needs to break out the Visine now and then as well. Still, a good read! -Peter)

Peter: A vampire, tired of living an adversarial existence with humans, comes up with a brilliant solution: buying blood from humans and building up a vast storage of the fluid. Once a reservoir of blood has been "stockpiled," an intricate infrastructure is built, pipes leading to the taps in the house of the vampires. Now that "feeding" is no longer needed, the vampire pleads with us to open up and socialize. Having had success copying EC's horror and science fiction stories, the Harvey writers and artists then turned their attention to EC's incredibly popular Mad (which was about to change its format from comic book to magazine), a title stuffed full of parody and layered laughs.

"I,Vampire" (from CoC #24) is humor in a similar vein (pun intended); our sympathetic undead storyteller seems earnest when he asks, "Did you ever try to improve relations between us? Did you? No! But we are going to! We'll make the first step toward cooperation!" The undead only want to get along with the human race... or do they? Could it all be a ploy to drop our guards against the bloodsuckers? Howard Nostrand's art only intensifies the vibe that we may have picked up the wrong funny book at the newsstand. Savvy 1950s fans who paid attention to such things must have believed Jack Davis was moonlighting over at Harvey for some cigarette money. "I, Vampire" was the last really good story in the last all-new issue of Chamber of Chills. The final issues of CoC would be toned-down (as in censored) versions of previously published stories, fallout from the comic book shake-up of 1954.

(This story was an awful lot of fun. Some tales that try for this type of zany humor can oftentimes come off as just grating, but this one pulls off the morbid cheekiness with quite a bit of panache. I really am surprised at how "good" Nostrand is at mimicking Davis's style. -Jose)

Jose: In pre-Revolution America, a group of rangers are tasked with tackling a tribe of Abenaquis Indians who have led a series of massacres against the colonists. Braving the wild rivers and laying out their plan of attack, the rangers infiltrate the tribe disguised as fellow warriors. The calculated attack quickly escalates into full-on slaughter on both sides. A few surviving Indians seek sanctuary in a nearby church but the vicious rangers are hungry for their blood. The pastor and a few sensible members try to dissuade the mob to no avail. The other rangers try to break in and when that fails decide to set the whole building on fire to smoke them out. The pastor joins his flock and the whole congregation goes up in flames. From the billowing smoke arises the stern figure of an Indian chief who passes his eternal sentence upon them. From that point forward the rangers’ numbers dwindle as they are besieged by Abenaquis allies, ghostly bell ringing, and death by their own hands. With the last few innocents left, the captain returns to home base to make his final report.

What starts out as a rip-roaring cowboys and Indians-type story quickly grows in poignancy and depth as it progresses. “The Forest of Skeletons” (WT #3) prepares you for the usual with its splash page of two looming bone-men in feathers and robes menacing our coon-hatted team, but there is nary a bit of goofiness to be found within the following six pages. The tone becomes exceedingly grim from the moment that the rifles are broken out and the Native American camp is slaughtered. Our expectations of good ol’ boy heroism are immediately dashed when we see the rabid rangers grab their torches and set fire to the church. It has the same bite as one of E.C.’s moralistic Shock Suspenstories, showing the blinding hold that vengeance has on the minds of even the most upright citizens. The warring colonists are determined to snuff their enemies out even if it means destroying one of their most sanctified establishments. And even after the smoky spirit of the chief sentences the defilers to death, the story still does not resort to the requisite spooky shenanigans. The team is destroyed by very real, natural threats, including one *very* frank of suicide by pistol. When the teary-eyed captain speaks to his superior and says the highly ironic line of “Mission completed,” it sinks to the pit of your stomach more than any of the gorier and outlandish endings we’ve seen yet.

(The story's a corker, indeed, but I just couldn't get behind Tom Hickey's scratchy, unattractive art, the kind of art that would populate underground comics a decade later. Hickey was prolific in the 1950s romance comics and I've seen some of his art in those titles. It's not as undefined as the visuals you see in "Forest" - that panel on the bottom of page 4 seems to be showing us a character with a coonskin cap and a bone through his upper lip. -Peter)

Peter: Frank drags his lovely wife, Ruth, into the Amazon to search for a mythical race of frog-men.
Ruth scoffs but plays along, seemingly so she can swim in the beautiful waters of the Amazon (never mind all the snakes, caiman and piranha) in her skimpy bathing suit. During one of these dips, Ruth is attacked by a frog-man and Frank must kill the "repulsive half-man, half-frog." During the tussle, Ruth inadvertently swallows some of the monster's blood but the pair can't stop to contemplate the side-effects as a host of fish-men approach. The couple manage to fight off the monsters but, as the last of the creatures fall, Ruth begins to change. The giant frog-girl (complete with suit and swim cap) murders her husband and heads off into the river, searching for more appropriate mates.

Exiting our overview of Chamber of Chills and entering the realm of Witches Tales, we discover a severe drop in the quality of scripts and art (my favorite Harvey alumni, Howard Nostrand, will ink a handful of upcoming stories but won't show up for a full blown Jack Davis homage until WT #18). Entirely too much space is give over to hidden civilizations and voodoo curses for my tastes so, for my Best of the Volume picks, I have to shift gears and highlight material that made me howl with laughter or at least snicker quite a bit. Both choices derived from WT elicited that reaction. Mind you, I'm okay with that. I don't mind checking my brain at the door now and then. That's exactly what you have to do with "Green Horror" (from WT #6) with its race of giant killer frogs. We have no idea in what capacity Frank is in the Amazon. Is he a professor? A scientist? Cub Scout? Just quenching a personal thirst for knowledge? How did they get all those supplies they'd need plus a tent into those two small backpacks? Does the first frogman who attacks Ruth have something more than food on his mind? Sure looks like it. Ruth isn't the only one who undergoes a radical transformation. Bob Powell does no favors for Frank, who goes from suave and svelte to overweight Richard Nixon by story's end. It's all fabulous four-color fun. This story shares a title with one of my favorite pre-code horror strips of all time from Farrell's Fantastic Fears #8 (August 1954), about a libidinous cactus. Can't wait to revisit that one!

(I actually think that 90% of the scripts from the early issues of Witches' Tales were of a marked increase in quality over what we had seen in say, the sophomore copies of Chamber of Chills. There's plenty of good material available without having to resort to the "so-bad-it's-hilarious" stuff, but that's just my call. "Green Horror" is probably only notable for that image of frog-lady in the one-piece, which I admit totally slays me. -Jose)

Jose: In Merry Olde France, the king has prosecuted the Guild of Fletchers for treason and all members who refuse to renounce their allegiance are being rounded up for public hangings. One staunch supporter, Jean Baptiste, is marched to the gallows but a last-minute revolt from the Fletchers distracts the royal guard and Jean makes his escape, breaking his neck non-fatally in the process. Making his way into the stinking sewers of the city, Jean’s plight only becomes direr with each moment as the lack of food, light, and drinkable water seems to seal his fate as surely as the hangman’s noose he has just eluded. When he starts finding traces of life in the form of grimy handprints and rags, Jean’s spirit begins to lift but it isn’t for long: these artifacts belong to a race of blind, fungus-riddled mutants who have made this cesspool their home. Though they lack the power of speech, they show Jean a manuscript that documents their existence and the rebel discovers that they are in fact early Guild members who have been eking out a primitive existence in this slimy hell. Jean sees the creatures as an army at his command to rise up and take back the earth and proceeds to do just that. Unfortunately the revolutionary didn’t count on the bright, dry environment on the topside which reduces the creatures to withered husks that are promptly burned by the citizenry. Recaptured, Jean is brought back and given a proper hanging this time.

I can’t say no to a good creature feature, and “The Sewer Monsters” (WT #4) is exactly that. It’s one of those irrepressible stories that piles one grotesquerie on top of another to the point that it overruns with terror like a backed-up septic tank. (Hmm. Sounded better in my head.) Bob Powell is on point here, rendering his underground trolls with delicious detail and cannily making Jean progressively more monstrous as he “descends” to their level. There are a few silly contrivances in the plot (just who wrote this all-knowing manuscript?), but in spite of that this is one macabre romp that doesn’t hold back in depicting the epic mayhem wrought by the creatures. We see them grapple men and women alike, burst into nurseries, and even snarl their sticky maws right out at the reader!

("Sewer Monsters" begins almost like a mash-up of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and The Phantom of the Opera but then quickly evolves into something completely original. I have no doubt that the creature busting into the nursery was going to eat that defenseless baby and have its way with the screaming mother. The climax, where poor Jean is recaptured and hung the right way, comes straight out of left field. The best kind of horror story. -Peter)

Peter: Dr. Marvelle discovers a "perfectly preserved baby dinosaur" in a glacier and takes it back to his lab, where "in the interest of science" he decides to bring it back to life. Marvelle suddenly discovers a potion for life and bathes the dino in the formula overnight. The next morning, the Doc enters his lab to find it destroyed and baby dino on the loose. Something has gone wrong with the fomula Marvelle used and the creature seems to be doubling its size hourly. The army can't stop it and, very soon, the monster has grown so large that the earth is knocked out of its orbit and collides with the sun. The earth ends just as Marvelle wakes from the nightmare. Shaken, he decides to hurry to his lab and destroy the dinosaur but the wrecked equipment and hole in the wall indicate he may be in for a long day.

Such a fabulously dopey and innocent fable (the dinosaur actually rides the earth right into the sun) with one of those soon-to-be cliched endings, that you can't help but smile... and probably laugh out loud while you're at it. Particularly noteworthy are the panels of Dino almost skating across a USA map as he grows larger and more unwieldy and Marvelle's declaration that he's just found "the secret of life!!" and the best thing to do is give a Brontosaurus a bath with it, to hell with the consequences. I've noted that many of the Harvey stories are obvious rip-offs of EC but "The Thing That Grew" (from WT #6) is an Atlas nod if there ever was one.

(I'm glad somebody mentioned the dinosaur riding the Earth into the sun. Without a doubt the silliest and most awesome sight I've seen so far in our fearful journey. If you don't crack a smile at the sight of those little Brontosaurus bits floating out into space, then you're already dead. -Jose)

Jose: In the shadowed chambers of a mansion of evil, a hard-hearted woman narrates her story to an old witch and a host of demonic figures to explain why she deserves to be inducted into their ranks. In the early part of the century, the woman was the beautiful Dora Mayberry who was engaged to Arnold Cavendish, a dandy in line to gain his dying father’s billion-dollar inheritance. They visit the old codger who smells their greed from a mile away and warns them that his money will only bring them unhappiness right before he kicks the bucket. Dora is eager to start her life with Arnold, but the jerk is more interested in flirting with gold-diggers and obsessing over his fear for growing old. When Arnold slaps her and leaves her on the street, Dora seeks out the assistance of local sorceress Madame Satana. Agreeing to give her soul over to the darkside, Dora is aged by her pact, making for an effective disguise as she poses as Arnold’s new housekeeper. Learning of a contract Arnold made with two scumbags to painlessly kill him in twenty years, Dora uses this information to plague the cad with nightmares and “help” him by arranging the shooting of the criminals by the police. This is only a means to further torture Arnold as she conjures their spirits to haunt him, leading him to jump out his bedroom window and right onto the spiked fence in front. Satisfied with her tale, the group votes to make Dora the next town witch in residence. 

A lot of the features that I enjoyed about “Death by Witchcraft” (WT #4) are ones that were present in the similar “Book of Vengeance” (CoC #4). Both of them deal with women who show the world what’s what with the benefit of that old black magic. “Death” centralizes its focus more by making its vengeance directed at one specific target, a brutish man who’s more reprehensible for his willingness to forget about Dora than do her any harm. That’s why it’s such a treat to see him unknowingly crawl back to her feet, begging for help as she secretly turns the screws further and further into him. Now that’s empowering! What’s especially subversive about this script is that it shows a generally good person selling their soul so they can wreak their unholy vengeance without any kind of punishment or moral backpedalling at all. There’s no immediate cosmic justice in store for Dora at the end barring an allusion to the torments of Hell upon her death, but during the whole story her mind is at peace with her decision and her sadism is of a disturbingly calm and assured variety. When she dons that pointed hat, she’s got a grim smile on her face. Palais could have been overboard with this one if he wanted to, but his muted approach to the art is perfectly in sync with the dark tone.

(A fabulous, fabulous story, one that holds so many subtle delights. The absence of color in a handful of panels [in particular, that highly atmospheric splash with only a hint of red and green] is jarring. Is Madame Mayberry actually the mascot of WT, who appears on the cover of each issue, dropped into the narrative for the fun of it? EC, DC, and Warren often employed the same gimmick now and then. -Peter)

And the "Stinking Zombie Award" goes to... 

Jose: Valerie is upset because her paintings of demons and bogeymen aren’t getting the acclaim and recognition she believes that they deserve so, like anyone else wronged by society, she turns to the forces of darkness. Her black incantations allow the two dimensional horrors on her canvas enter our reality, under the spell of the full moon, the monsters are forced to do her bidding which mostly involves them slaughtering and torturing all of her critics. When the critters try to revolt against their master, the witchy Valerie throws a candelabrum at them. She laughs maniacally as the creatures cower behind their picture frames and the whole studio goes up in smoke.

As I’ve established in my last few “Stinking Zombie” nominations, I treasure above all else a story’s willingness to go the distance even if it trips and fumbles along the way. But the minute it starts to slack up and go through the motions under the pretense of  “This is what the reader must want,” I freeze up immediately. “Revenge by the Full Moon” (WT #3) is not as bad as some others we’ve seen, but the overriding sense of indifference that it possesses ruins a few moments that could have been genuinely effective (take that gnarly corpse discovery from the last panel, for instance). And Manny Stallman, whose work I’ve been enjoying thus far, seems to be asleep at the switch this time. A lot of the compositions in this look noticeably hasty, and I don’t know what he was trying to accomplish with some of the “monsters” but most of them look like extras from a Pixar movie. I think that the other stories in the first issues of Witches’ Tales really raised the bar, but “Revenge by the Full Moon” feels like a few step backs into all the old habits that were left behind.

Peter: Pulled kicking and screaming from the same issue of Witches Tales comes "The Puppets That Became Men." Ezra and Liza Krutch are a husband and wife team of puppeteers who travel the world with their unique act and almost uncanny gift for ventriloquism. Of course, there's more to meet the eyes here and we soon learn that the Krutchs have enslaved a sextet of little people and use them for nefarious acts of larceny while enthralling their audiences. Tired of living a life of bad food and poor benefits, the little people rise up and rebel against their captors, stringing them up like puppets and forcing Ezra to commit murder and suicide before a packed house.

The plot, a variation of which had already been done on a big screen in Dr. Cyclops, is not the problem here. It's the sheer weight of captions and word balloons that  populate each page, a gross miscalculation that minimizes the art in several panels. Wait a second... what the hell am I complaining about? John Sink's generic art  doesn't deserve the full showcase that a Palais, Powell, or Nostrand almost commands. One of the little people alludes to the fact that they were kidnapped from "our little land in the mountains." Why wasn't this fascinating aspect of the story explored further? It's ludicrous to think that the wee folk could not only have conjured up the ingredients for the potion that paralyzed the Krutchs but also possess the strength to string them up before show time and hang them from the rafters. An incredibly silly waste of space.


Peter: This week I'll give my space over to "Murder Mansion" from Witches' Tales #6. It's not that "MM" is a great story... no, no, no... it's anything but a great story. But sometimes I'm reminded why I love these goofy little stories in the first place: because they're so "out there." "Murder Mansion" perfectly encapsulates the Ed Wood Factor that so many pre-code horror stories exhibit: a lack of cohesive plotting, realistic dialogue, and twists and turns that defy logic. The story begins with a happy newlywed couple but then turns its focus elsewhere, almost forgetting the couple altogether, and revels in its bloodshed. If you read all eight loony pages, you'll understand how hard it would be to write a proper synopsis for "Murder Mansion." 

Jose: If my pick for "Lay That Pistol Down" from the last post was any indication, I do enjoy a good gimmick tale from time to time. "Dust Unto Dust" (CoC #23) gives the much-loved "reanimated corpse" story a spin when our hapless protagonists finds the various methods of murder no match for the moldy muncher that has come calling for him. I can't resist some great back-from-the-dead purple prose, and this one boasts some great lines and an ending that... well, see for yourself!


Odd? Really?
He would go see his pupils of ten—thirteen—of many years ago.
-from “The Choir Master” (CoC #21)

(I just like how it sounds like the omnipotent narrator was trying to recall the facts and then just said “Screw it.” -Jose)

The surge for art was Sid Baker’s surge. 

Sid Baker: "Odd -- there's something strange about it - something horrible about the painting..." ->

As Sid Baker stretched a new canvas, its virgin surface clean and bare… seemingly screaming for the first caressing brush stroke, he felt the well of inspiration bubble.
-from "The Death Mask" (CoC #21)

He clawed at the soft Italian earth surrounding him.
-from “Grave’s End,” (CoC #24)

(I admire that kind of specificity. -Jose)

“With my knowledge of electricity I’ll shock the world… I’ll shock it to death if I have to!”
-from “The Monster of Mad Mountain” (WT #1)

Squint's threat to another character after one of his victims takes a suicidal leap out of a window: “You better run… unless you want to go down the short way!!” 

Squint decided to lay low for a while after the... accidents. But as he waits for his boat to leave, horror would tear his mind to shreds if he could see the three strange men coming aboard...
-from "The Evil Eye!" (WT #2)

A cache of crackling quotes!
There, where the wind is colder than a corpse and moans like the ghosts of murderers...

…the air cold enough to crack a man’s brain… 
-from "Tombstones to Tibet" (WT #3)

As Arnold pushes a biddy down the stairs: “Away, old woman! You, too, make me fear the wrinkled and diseased years!”
-from “Death by Witchcraft” (WT #4)

With great pleasure, Sylvia slid on the gloves, softer than the hair of a ghost, little realizing that she wore the black hands of death!!
-from “The Spell of the Black Gloves” (WT #5)

“There’s our big, brave criminal! Shoots a man in the back and then pleads for mercy! Frisk him, Tom—I can’t stand touching garbage!”
-from “Share My Coffin” (WT #5)


Jose: Overall, I was quite impressed with how good most of the stories from the last few issues of Chamber of Chills were. Usually the end of an era is marked by a frantic assemblage of what the creators consider the series' "greatest hits" with those sad and lame products nowhere near the high points that came earlier. It was getting to the point that I was starting to worry that I wouldn't be able to elect any stories from this batch of Witches' Tales for my top five! Some notables that weren't picked were "The Inside Man" (CoC #21), which really went out there with its genocidal conclusion and black-hearted twist, and "The Museum" (CoC #23) which flirted with a delightful bit of metafiction that slowly starts to eat itself in a way that invigorated its hoary setting and concept.

And lo and behold, I find that many of the scripts from WT's first issues are also quite the accomplishments themselves. I don't know if there were different scribes penning the stories for WT than whoever started working on CoC in its infancy, but many of the Witches Tales, as familiar as they might have been, startled me with their literate quality. Personally I'm not one who is adverse to caption and dialogue-heavy comics. I know the medium is meant to convey most of its meaning through the illustrations, but seeing stories that are willing to add that much more detail and character interaction just puts a big smile on my face. Needless to say, this was one of the harder posts to narrow my choices down for who would take home the gold.

Some of them, like the tense and terrific "Tombstones to Tibet" (WT #3), just barely missed the mark. Others were classic and classy in both art and script, such as "Voodoo Vengeance" and "Launched in Blood" (WT #1) and just a barrel of fun like Rudy Palais' pulp adventure "Phantom in the Flames" (WT #2). We also saw some great narrative ploys like the character in "The Evil Eye" (WT #2) using the empty socket behind his false peeper to smuggle diamonds and inadvertently using one particular gem that gives him the power to kill with his stare. Only in the funny books, folks!

There was a good share of surprisingly poignant dramas that resonated beyond their genre gimmickry, like the anti-hero of "The Man with Two Faces" (WT #2) losing the memory of his bloody past as a vicious gangster only to start a new life with a new look as an upstanding citizen who becomes a police officer (!) only to lose it all when his old self starts to percolate to the surface. There's also the modest "Massacre of the Ghosts" from the same issue that, like "The Forest of Skeletons," attempts to bring to light some of the white man's savagery towards the native peoples of America under the veneer of a four-color chiller, ending on a note of somber ambiguity that shows us that there are some places which we cannot claim as our own.

Don't you worry, there's been some craziness to spare too. "The Monster of Mad Mountain" is a complete swipe of Man Made Monster (1941), even down to the living dynamo's demise when his rubber suit snags on barbed wire and drains him of his electric juice; the story is just asking for a lawsuit by naming its harmless hulk Lenny, after another Lon Chaney Jr. character! We also get a little bit of uncomfortable romance when the lady from "The Clinging Phantom" (WT #5) falls for her ghoul-faced cousin and passionately kisses him as her husband looks on in horror.

One thing I did want to comment on (too late, your limit is up!) before we leave Chamber of Chills completely was the little page filler feature they did called "Chilly Chamber Music." The idea behind this was to take popular songs of the day and alter them with some fittingly gruesome lyrics. The first run of these were silly and fluffy enough with jokes about vampires cuddling up with their victims and the like, but the "Music" segments from the last few issues were decidedly darker, perhaps in correspondence with the general wave in horror comics at the time right before the Code came into effect that saw many publishers pushing the envelope of good taste further and further.

Ha ha?

What disturbs especially about these segments is their apparent intent of offering a humorous segue to the next story, but these cheery songs are paired up with disturbing images of smiling murderers and dopey-eyed crooks hanging from nooses that give the whole thing a fairly nasty touch. Maybe I'm getting soft, but some of these unsettled me more than most of the stories!

The Comics
Chamber of Chills #21-24

#21 (January 1954)
Cover by Lee Elias

"The Choirmaster"
Art by Bob Powell

"Nose for News"
Art by Manny Stallman and John Giunta

"The Death Mask"
Art by Joe Certa

"The Inside Man"
Art by Howard Nostrand

#22 (March 1954)
Cover by Lee Elias

"The Ugly Duckling"
Art by Manny Stallman and John Giunta

Art by Jack Sparling

Art by John Giunta and Manny Stallman

"The Skeptic!"
Art by Joe Certa

#23 (May 1954)
Cover by Lee Elias

Art by Manny Stallman and John Giunta

Art by Jack Sparling

"The Museum"
Art by Bob Powell

"Dust Unto Dust"
Art by Howard Nostrand

#24 (July 1954)
Cover by Lee Elias

"Grave's End"
Art by Bob Powell

"I, Vampire"
Art by Howard Nostrand

"Credit and Loss"
Art by Mort Meskin and George Roussos

"Grim Years"
Art by Manny Stallman

#25 (October 1954)
Cover by Lee Elias

A complete reprinting of CoC #5)

#26 (December 1954)
Cover by Al Avison

(a complete reprinting of CoC #9)

Witches Tales 1-6

#1 (January 1951)
Cover by Al Avison

"The Monster of Mad Mountain"
Art by Al Avison

"Voodoo Vengeance"
Art by Rudy Palais

"Launched in Blood"
Art by John Sink

"The Dead Won't Die"
Art by Tom Gill

#2 (March 1951)
Cover by Al Avison

"The Evil Eye"
Art Uncredited

"Phantom in the Flames"
Art by Rudy Palais

"Massacre of the Ghosts"
Art by Al Luster

"The Man with Two Faces"
Art by Manny Stallman

#3 (May 1951)
Cover by Al Avison

"Tombstones to Tibet"
Art by Bob Powell

"The Puppets That Became Men"
Art by John Sink

"The Forest of Skeletons"
Art by Tom Hickey

"Revenge by the Full Moon"
Art by Manny Stallman

#4 (July 1951)
Cover Uncredited

"The Sewer Monsters"
Art by Bob Powell

"The Yellow Menace"
Art by Rudy Palais

"Death by Witchcraft"
Art by Rudy Palais

"Bells of Doom"
Art by Rudy Palais

#5 (September 1951)
Cover Uncredited

"The Spell of the Black Gloves"
Art by Bob Powell

"Share My Coffin"
Art by Rudy Palais

"The Clinging Phantom"
Art by Vic Donohue

"Curse of the Caterpillar"
Art by Rudy Palais

#6 (November 1951)
Cover Uncredited

"Murder Mansion"
Art by Lee Elias

"Green Horror"
Art by Bob Powell

"Servants of the Tomb!"
Art by Bob Powell and Howard Nostrand

"The Thing That Grew!"
Art by Manny Stallman

Coming in Two Weeks! 
Harvey Part Four: Witches Tales #7-16


Jack Seabrook said...

Great post, guys! Those Lee Elias covers are gorgeous!

Grant said...

Dora in "Death by Witchcraft" really seems to anticipate Angelique on DARK SHADOWS. Including her desire to make trouble for one man repeatedly, and also having OTHER irons in the fire, and just about always succeeding.